The Columbus City Schools board not only has been interviewing a secret list of candidates to become the next district superintendent, but it also has added names not on the list of 19 applicants it released in December.
The board also has been allowing a consultant to keep documents to avoid the Ohio Open Meetings Act and has been making official board decisions in potentially illegal private meetings, district emails – released to The Columbus Dispatch under a records request – reveal.
After promising a transparent process, the board scheduled interviews for seven potential superintendent candidates that occurred Jan. 8 to 10. According to emails, they included: current Acting Superintendent John Stanford; former district deputy superintendent Keith Bell, who later took a post in suburban Cleveland; Errick Greene, chief of schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and David James, superintendent of Akron City Schools.
But the board also held get-togethers with three candidates whom the district did not name when it released the list of applicants in December. The board called those “meetings” rather than “interviews,” the term they used for the four candidates who actually applied.
The district released applications from new candidates, some with dates before the Dec. 8 deadline, but who weren’t on the list of candidates that the board released Dec. 11.
New applicants include: Robert Haworth, superintendent of Elkhart Community Schools in Indiana; Michael Conran, superintendent of Global Education Excellence in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Corwin Robinson, principal of St. Tammany Parish Schools in Mandeville, Louisiana; and Jesse Pratt, academic improvement officer for Indianapolis Public Schools.
Board President Gary Baker said Jan. 29 he didn’t know why the four new applicants’ names weren’t released with the original list of 19, but that it might be because documents were first given to the board during the January interviews.
Also, Baker said, there may be other applicants who were interviewed whom the district still hasn’t identified.
Asked if the board was deliberately trying to keep records from being retained by the district and instead held by the outside search consultant to evade the Ohio Public Records Act, Baker said: “I’d rather not get into details like that. Any documents that the consultant has that relate to applicants are public records.”
But emails show the consultant, Alan Leis with Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, was employing methods to keep records out of the public eye.
“I shared them last meeting but had to recollect them so the list wasn’t public,” Leis said about search documents in an email to a district staffer in December. Another email also refers to sharing documents with the board and then recollecting them.
Another Leis email indicates that the board might have made decisions in closed-doors meetings, which is illegal under Ohio’s open-meetings law.
“Next Tues. could take a while,” Leis said in another December email about an upcoming closed executive session meeting. “We need to decide whom they’ll interview, decide on questions, decide about them presenting or [sic] writing sample and decide on next steps after Jan. interview.”
According to the Ohio Attorney General’s “Sunshine Laws” manual, a “public body may not take any formal action, such as voting or otherwise reaching a collective decision,” in a closed meeting.
“They can’t decide on a lunch menu in executive session,” Tim Smith, an attorney specializing in public records and open-meetings law who created the Media Law Center for Ethics and Access at Kent State University, told the Dispatch two weeks ago.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes to find the best person,” Baker said when asked Jan. 29 about the irregularities in the district’s vetting process for a new leader.
One of the secret semifinalist candidates is from Wisconsin, fitting none of those who have applied, according to an email. Another was referred to only as “Talisa.”
“One of you will also need to meet Talisa who will call when she arrives and will need to be directed to the proper door,” Leis wrote. “She is anxious about being anonymous in a building where her face is known.”
Baker wouldn’t say whether or not the district interviewed Talisa Dixon, superintendent of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District and the only current or former Columbus school district employee named Talisa in a Dispatch database dating back more than a decade.
Dixon, who couldn’t be reached Jan. 29, was named superintendent of Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools in 2014 after a search done by Leis’ consulting firm.
The board will hold another private meeting next week to choose several finalists, and then it will make that list public, Baker said.
“That’s transparency,” Baker said. “That’s something we think is very important.”